The Corpse Watcher

David Kaiser suggests that an Irish folktale may contain intimations of a native shamanic tradition

In Patrick Kennedy’s 1866 seminal Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, he relates the story of ‘The Corpse Watchers’ [1]. This, he tells us, was the tale most often repeated to him while collecting these stories. In light of modern theories concerning archaic shamanism and out-of-body experiences, a careful re-reading of this folktale may be enlightening.

Like so many fireside stories it begins with a mother and her three daughters. The eldest decides to seek her fortune and departs without her mother’s blessing. After a long walk she became hungry and began eating her meal. A hungry old woman came by and asked for a share of her food. Indignantly she refused, and the woman walked away.

That evening she lodged at a farmer’s house. The woman there offered her a shovel-full of silver and a spade-full of gold if she would sit up and watch the corpse of her son that was lying in the other room. She agreed.

After the family went to bed she sat near the fire, looking at the dead man lying under the table. Suddenly the corpse stood up in his shroud and asked, “All alone fair maid?” She did not answer. After asking twice more, he hit her with a switch and she turned into a grey flag.

A week later the second eldest daughter repeated the exact same events, resulting in another grey flag. However, when the youngest daughter set off it was not to find her fortune, but her missing sisters. She left with her mother’s blessing and on the way she shared her food when she encountered the old woman.

So here, obviously, is the protagonist of the story. She is the good daughter, with something special about her. When she agrees to watch the corpse we sense events will somehow be different. The custom of the wake or the watching of the corpse was once common not only in Ireland, but throughout the British Isles. The spirit of the deceased was thought to linger in the home for a period after death. [2]

Instead of sitting by the fire alone with the corpse, she had the company of the cat and dog. In her lap she amused herself with some nuts and apples given to her by the house mistress. Thinking him handsome, she was saddened by the young corpse. As before, the man stood up and asked her if she was alone. “All alone I am not,” she replied, “I’ve little dog Douse and Pussy my cat; I’ve apples to roast and nuts to crack.”

There may be a couple of items worthy of note here. The animals with her could be interpreted as her familiars, the first sign of the woman’s supernatural character. The animal familiar belonging to a witch (by that I mean the traditional cunning person or folk healer, not the evil figure largely created by the church) may be akin to a shaman’s spirit helper, protecting and guiding the person in the other world.

Nuts and apples were both commonly used in divination pertaining to matrimony, hinting at the direction our story will take us. Apples were carefully peeled, keeping the rind in one piece. When this was thrown over the shoulder its shape was thought to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. Nuts were also burned in the fire for divination. How brightly they burned or whether they cracked revealed whether the person was to be married that year or the nature of the relationship. Both of these rituals were most frequently performed on All-Hallows Eve [3]. We do not know when our tale is taking place, but like Halloween it is certainly a liminal time when the division blurs between our world and that of the spirits.

The corpse was impressed by the woman’s courage, but doubted that she would follow him on his perilous journey. She stood fast, however, and said that she had agreed to mind him and she could not be dissuaded. The young man leaped out of the window and the woman followed close behind. They travelled to the Green Hills, which opened up at the man’s command, and they both entered.

Although it is not specified how they travel, it is here that the ecstatic or out-of-body travel clearly begins. They exited through the window. It was once the custom to open doors and windows upon a death to allow the soul to exit. Unfortunately for the modern-day ley hunter, it does not state whether they travelled in a straight line or not. However, we may try to infer some clues.

A common folklore motif tells of the soul leaving the body while it sleeps. In one Irish version of this story [4] a sleeping man’s spirit leaves his body and flies away as a butterfly, along a pathway and across a bridge and through the reeds in the marsh and into a cow’s skull. As the spirit returns it takes precisely the same route, implying travel over an established route rather than simply wandering. Ireland’s fairies also travelled along invisible but defined routes called fairy passes. The straightness or otherwise of these fairy paths is debated. However, straightness is again implied. The owner of a house in Co.Mayo, after a series of misfortunes, had a corner of the building removed because it jutted onto a fairy pass [5].

In our story the travellers enter a green hill, which was traditionally thought to be the abode of fairies and was their entrance into the otherworld (as shown in the early woodcut illustrated here). This connection between the flight of spirits and fairy passes is made clear in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries [6] where it is shown that fairies were commonly believed to be the spirits of the dead.

After passing through the Green Hills they found themselves at a bog. The man trod lightly through the marsh but the woman didn’t know how to get across. Then the old woman whom she had met on the road appeared. She was actually a fairy who used her powers to make the woman’s shoes spread out so she could walk through the bog without sinking.

Beyond this was a burning wood, but the fairy wrapped a damp cloak around her to protect her from the fire. Then they entered a cave of horrors where terrible visions appeared to the woman, but again the fairy helped her by plugging her ears with wax so she would not hear the terrible cries. Outside the cavern was a glass mountain a quarter of a mile high and surrounded by the ocean. Once more the fairy came to her aid and made her slippers sticky so that she could walk up the slick surface to the top.

This series of trials is (arche)typical of the obstacles that a hero has to overcome to accomplish his or her goal. The seemingly insignificant act of kindness is amply repaid when it later turns out to be the one person who can help you.

The appearance of the bog may be of interest. We already came across a marsh briefly in the episode of the butterfly. These waterlogged areas were certainly seen as sacred to the Celts, who made many ritual offerings in them. They may also be related to spirit travel, due to the appearance of marsh lights or ‘corpse candles’ in these waterlogged areas. Thought to be ignited marsh gas, these lights have variously been interpreted as fairies or spirits. Sometimes when corpse lights appeared they were said to be an omen of death and would trace the route of the impending funeral. The other trials may be a distant echo of the use of flickering flames, caves and sensory deprivation as techniques used to produce the trance state required for a shaman’s spirit flight.

The glass mountain surrounded by water is clearly the same as the Glass Castle surrounded by the sea in Celtic mythology, and was itself used as another term for the otherworld [7]. Other parallels may be seen in the Celtic name for Glastonbury, Ynys-witrin, meaning Glass Island. This ‘Summerset’ town certainly has more than its share of otherworldly connections, from being Arthur’s mystic Avalon, to the famous Tor being the home of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of the fairy-folk and lord of the Underworld. Moreover, Merlin is sometimes said to sleep with his treasures in an invisible house of glass on Bardsey Island off the Welsh coast.

The woman finally caught up with the man who told her to go home and tell his mother how hard she tried to look after him. Then he jumped headfirst into the sea. Without hesitation she followed suit. Plunging to the bottom of the sea, they followed a green light and came to a lovely meadow with the green sea above it like sky. Here she rested by his side but was overcome with sleep. When she woke she was in a bed back at the farmer’s house with the mistress and her son, now alive, watching over her.

The man had been cursed by a witch whom he had refused to marry. He’d been trapped in a state between life and death until a woman could perform all of the tasks necessary to rescue him. At the woman’s request, her sisters were returned to their rightful shapes and were sent back to their mother with their gold and silver. The young woman and man were then happily married.

Comparison can be drawn between the following of the light at the bottom of the sea and the tunnel of light typical of out-of-body or near-death experiences. It is this universal shamanic mental experience which may have been mapped out on the landscape in linear alignments [8]. This, in turn, may have evolved into the concepts of funeral paths and fairy passes already mentioned.

The idea of entering an aquatic realm as a metaphor for an altered state of consciousness was common among shaman in areas with a lot of water. In addition to the underworld connections, this likely derives from the physiological effects of the trance state, “which are like the sensations one feels while underwater: restricted body movements, blurred or altered vision, difficulty breathing, changes in hearing, and a sense of weightlessness”. [9]

Moreover, an interesting parallel can be drawn to a story called ‘The Soul Cages’ in Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry [10]. Here a fisherman befriends a merrow (mer-man), who takes him to his world under the sea. To get there they go through a cave, climb to the top of a rock and dive into the sea. Here there is also dry land with the sea acting as the sky. While there, the fisherman discovers that the merrow has several souls of drowned sailors trapped in lobster-pots. He contrives a way to get the merrow drunk and free the souls.

Connections between going under-water and entering the otherworld frequently reveal themselves in the form of aquatic spirit helpers, as in this tale. In both of these stories the hero goes to the underworld via a very similar route. The universality of these shamanic images may be seen as far away as California, where native myths tell of Elye Wun, a swordfish spirit who lived in a crystal house under the sea.

In both Irish tales the hero enters the other (aquatic) world and frees trapped souls. One of the most important tasks for traditional mystics and healers was to enter the otherworld in order to rescue the spirit of the sick. Illness was frequently seen the result of a curse by a malevolent rival shaman, or in the case of our tale a disgruntled witch.

‘The Corpse Watcher’ contains several shamanic themes such as spirit travel, the otherworld and the rescuing of a sick soul. Trance-inducing techniques are hinted at and universal entoptic imagery occurring in the brain is also alluded to.

These shamanic elements recorded in British and Irish folklore may have become somewhat mixed and obscured over time and retelling, but through all of this the source still seems apparent.


1 Kennedy, Patrick, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, Macmillan and Co., London, 1866, p.54-57.

2 Hole, Christina, English Folklore, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1940, p. 50

3 Owen, Trefor M., Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1959, p. 127.

4 O’Sullivan, Sean, The Folklore of Ireland, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1974, p. 126-127.

5 Devereux, Paul, Shamanism and the Mystery Lines, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, 1994, p.133-134.

6 Evans-Wentz, W.Y., The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Citadel Press, New York, 1990 (orig. 1911).

7 Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth and Legend: Poetry and Romance, Gresham Publishing Co., London, 1912, p. 367.

8 Devereux, Paul, Shamanism and the Mystery Lines, Llewelln Publications, St. Paul, 1994.

9 Whitley, David S., The Art of the Shaman, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2000, p. 113.

10 Yeats, W.B. (ed), Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Gramercy Books, Avenel, New Jersey, 1888 (1986 edition), p. 61-75.


Published in NE96 (Winter 2003), pp.12-15